Coming February 15th from All Due Respect freaking Books.
The old farm was just off to the left before the road began to dissolve into a dirt 2-track in the raw wood. Miles in, hidden from everything, cars began to line the two-track, half on the road and half run up into the edge of the forest, thirty or so cars and trucks lined up in the dirt. Behind the falling, abandoned rock homestead a large group of men gathered. More than 100 eyes found the Olds and the air was abuzz with a mush of southern speak, men talking like they were nursing a mouthful of coins. The air smelled of smoke and whiskey.
“Need a minute?” Daddy asked.
Daddy grabbed the black canvas bag from the back seat and set it between himself and Neil. Neil unzipped it, pulled out the bone white tape. He peeled up an edge to get it started and handed it to Daddy. Daddy pulled a long piece of tape from the roll. Neil held out his right hand and Daddy applied the tape while Neil fished through the bag of petroleum jelly, bandages, instant ice packs, and suture. He blew the dust from his red plastic mouth guard. When his daddy finished with the right hand Neil gave him his left.
Daddy took out a black marker and wrote “THE” on the taped right hand and “BULL” on his left.
The circular arrangement of the men at the old homestead was not of their own design. Neil approached, leading Daddy, and the herd of men parted revealing the sectioned cattle gates. The metal gates were tied end-to-end with thick twine and arranged in a circle about 30 feet across. At the far end of the circle stood a boy, maybe a bit older than Neil, a lot bigger for sure. Neil looked at his own taped fists.
“How about Calf Boy?” someone yelled, as if completing Neil’s thoughts. There was laughter.
“Laugh it up, hyenas,” Daddy said as he removed the boy’s shirt from his shoulders. Neil pulled his lean frame through the bars of the gate. There was little fanfare, a few claps and whistles, but they were for the event, not the contenders. The boy across the circle bounced and stared at Neil. Neil met his gaze, held it. A small pregnant girl, dirty and thin but for her bulge, entered the space and stood center ring, blocking the fighters’ view of one another. She held up a white board with the odds scribbled in red. Neil was the underdog at thirteen to one. Daddy always put a hundred dollars on Neil, underdog or no. Neil looked at the girl, probably his age. Half of her face was fire scared and purple. Neil imagined her face held to a griddle or hot plate, or maybe she was caught up in a lab explosion. The girl turned in the ring and held the odds board high. Neil looked at her face as it rotated before him, one side dirty and beautiful, the other burned, shining and clean. She was partially bald and one ear was shriveled to a tiny lump of blackened cauliflower flesh. She exited the ring and the opponent was no longer staring Neil down, but talking to the lone man in his corner, the kid’s daddy. The referee entered. He was a little and old, brown and twisted like bacon laid out to cool.
Neil’s daddy stood behind the gate, towel in one hand, water bottle in the other. “What you gonna do, Neily?”
“Soon as I can.”
“Counter whatever he throws.”
“What’ll that do?”
“Make him afraid to hit me.”
“Right. Where’s he weak?”
Neil studied his opponent. The boy was like a man with an adolescent’s head. His face was red with acne. He was well muscled and his torso was decorated with green, home-inked tattoos. Praying hands lay across his chest; tombstones and significant dates were placed randomly, faces of fallen kin folk, and on his neck, a baby’s face and two words: MAMA’S BOY.
“Ha. Everybody’s weak somewheres. Find it and keep on it.”
“Don’t worry about the odds. They don’t know nothin’. He’s riding on his size. They think he’s hard, but they don’t know hard. He don’t know hard. Yer goin’ to teach him hard. Hear me?”
“I’m hard. He’s not.”
“Good boy, Neily. Keep on him.”
A fat man in overalls and no shirt struck the top bar of the metal gate with an eighteen-inch section of rebar. The sound was muted, thick.
“Get off the fence you dumb bastards!” The man yelled. Three drunken men looked at him, vultures perched on the metal. The words took and they backed from the gate. The man struck the metal again sending the tinny vibrations in all directions. He nodded, satisfied with the sound of the makeshift bell.
Neil lowered his chin and moved forward, staring past his own raised fists. He measured his opponent’s reach and was ready for the jabs. Inside was Neil’s place, always inside. He would suffocate the ink trimmed man-child.
The kid’s punches were crisp and snapped Neil’s head back. Neil pressed through the sting and kept on him. Another two quick jabs, pain, no noise anywhere. Neil continued to close the space. Two more jabs and a cross had the crowd counting their winnings.
“C’mon Neily! Charge him! Charge him!” Dad said.
Neil didn’t hear the words, but they landed somewhere in his subconscious and he did what was ordered with a combination of muscle memory and experience. He knocked away a jab, kept his feet moving and began throwing body shots in a left-right flurry. The tattooed boy hunkered down and brought his arms to his side to protect the ribs. Neil twisted his hard knuckles into the boy’s arms at the end of each strike, trying to drill through the bone. He continued slugging at the body until the rhythm was nearly predictable and the man-child’s arms began to drop when Neil pressed ahead, not when he punched. Neil worked the body through another flurry and added a well-placed right uppercut. The kid stumbled back bringing hollers and cheers from the men around the ring, money aside, a good fight trumped all. The kid’s eyes went glassy for just a second. Neil pressed his advantage, but his opponent came back, strong chinned and angry. A short exchange and a clinch until the ref pushed them apart and commanded they continue. The tattooed boy smiled at Neil, a show that he wasn’t hurt, a sign he had been. Neil went back to work, driving inside the kid’s reach advantage, taking the jabs and then pressing inside. He continued to pound the body, took a couple quick body shots. Neil threw the uppercut several more times but couldn’t land it cleanly, blows grazing the muscled shoulders or finding only empty space. He never stopped stalking. He took the mean headshots and pressed on, landing hard shots of his own. The kid covered up his ribs. Neil threw a left hook that grazed the kid’s chin. The kid stepped back, planted his feet and shot a straight right into Neil’s solar plexus, right where the ribs opened up at the zyphoid process. The wind rushed out of Neil’s body leaving a burning pit. Neil stepped back, slipped in the dirt. He stumbled back, gasping. The tattooed boy stepped forward, pressed ahead.
“Get him! He’s hurt!” Someone said through the garbled rush of voices. Neil’s eyes focused beyond the boy. He saw the boy’s smiling father. He saw the smile forming words: “Kill him! Kill him!”
The mass of tattoos became his focus again and the kid’s right arm was cocked back at his side. Neil allowed the fist to release and leaned back, felt the wind of the powerful hook as the bell ended the round.
Neil went to Daddy. He found air, breathed deep and came back to life. Neil tilted his head back and Dad poured water into his open, panting hole. He resisted the desire to take in the water. He swished it between his cheeks, felt the contrast between his cool mouth and his sweating body. The sun was dipping toward the horizon, barely reaching the scene through the trees, but the muggy heat would not relent. Neil spat in the dirt.
“Good round, Neily. Keep that pressure on! Did he hurt you?”
“Just took my wind. I slipped.”
“Did you find it?”
“He shows his right hook big time.”
“Good boy. Now you make him pay for that. Keep working the body. That left feel good?”
“You know what to do then?”
The bellman struck the gate with his rebar. Dad slapped his shoulder and Neil pressed ahead.
“Yer dead little boy,” the tattooed kid said through his mouthpiece.
Neil answered the threat with a burst of right hands. The last one caught the boy’s floating ribs and Neil felt the crack, saw the wince, heard the squeal. Neil continued working the spot until he was caught with a solid hook that made him see the flashing white promise of sleep. He answered the punch with his own powerful right cross to the chin and went back to the ribs before the kid’s head could face him again. The kid began to circle; Neil stepped with him, cutting off the escape. The kid changed direction and Neil followed, slicing the ring further. He pressed on. The kid stepped forward and landed a few body shots. Neil threw a straight right and found the empty space left by a learned tilt of the head. The kid countered with a clean left to Neil’s temple. The flash returned; Neil’s legs gave. He went down to the dirt.
“…3…4…5,” the ref counted. Neil felt the hot dirt on his cheek. The men surrounding the ring were going ape shit crazy. Neil saw the tattooed kid at his corner, two of him. The kid’s father was slapping his back, raising his arm.
“C’mon Neily! Get up!”
“7…8” the ref shouted. Neil swayed as the world settled, six physical dimensions coalescing to three. The ref blocked his path, took his hands. “You okay?”
“Look at me, boy,” the ref ordered. Neil did it. He forced his swollen lids open and stared into the ref’s face.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
The ref nodded. He returned to a neutral space between the pugilists.
Neil charged, determined, The Bull. He would never stop crowding the man-child. The kid met him, sensing an advantage. He launched a power shot that Neil dodged easily. Neil countered with a hard straight right that cracked the kid’s incisors. Another caved the kid’s nose. Neil almost laughed at the incredulous, gaping hole in front of him, until the red blood began to flow. The boy opened his mouth, unable to breathe otherwise, broken teeth, nerves exposed to the hot air. His eyes watered and his chin hung loose below the hole. Neil watched the blood stream from the nose and drip off the chin, the drops slapping home in the dirt. Neil felt the anger begin to creep in. He took it, charged. Neil launched wild body shots, tucked his chin. He tightened his core. The straight right to the body came again and landed in the same spot it had in the 1st round. Neil kept his air, but stumbled back. The kid’s fist was already cocked at his side as he stepped forward, bloody and angry.
Neil slid his left foot back into a southpaw stance and drew out the earth’s power through his leg. The kid’s father was screaming. “Watch the left!” The man yelled. The kid’s right fist remained low. He moved closer, shaking the hammer, ready to unload, his right side was completely unguarded.
Neil measured the distance and dug into the dirt with his feet. The energy flowed up his legs, through the twist of his hips, through his shoulder, his arm. The fist landed hard underneath the kid’s open chin, slamming his teeth together and biting through his tongue as Neil drove the punch through the boy. He imagined the kid’s face giving in, collapsing. Neil could feel the soft and hard tissues, hot and moist. He drove through brain matter and lifted the kid from the planet as his fist met the inside of the skull. He fell hard to the dirt, a cloud of dusty defeat mushroomed up from his body, stinging men’s eyes and caking the sweat to their faces. The man-child did not get up by his own power.
The payouts were made. Neil’s daddy cleared close to three grand from the purse and the bet. He put his arm around Neil and held him tight and close as they walked back to the Olds. Hard, stinging, congratulatory hands landed on Neil’s back. “The Bull” became a mantra.
“Thank you,” Neil said. “Thank you.” Neil looked among the men for the burned, swollen bellied girl. She was not there, only the sounds of victory and despair.
Daddy drove through the dark. It was quiet except for the cool air rushing over the car and the rumble of the engine. Neil’s body was tight and sore. His face was swollen. His head throbbed. His hand caught fire every time he moved his fingers. He held up the fist, catching glimpses of the red flesh as moonlight cut through the trees. He massaged the knuckles and his finger found something hard, something foreign. Neil worked the object with his finger, doing nothing but pushing it deeper, losing it in a new flow of shining black blood.
“You done good,” Daddy said without looking from the road.
“I know.” Neil said. Now his daddy looked at him.
“Good,” he said. “Your face hurt?”
“Not too bad.”
“Well it’s killing me.”
The laugh shook his torso and Neil winced. He leaned against the car door and felt the cool glass on his hot, tender face. He closed his eyes.
Neil thought about the thirsty dog from the gas station. He wondered what would become of it. He saw himself and the dog in the back the Olds. The dog loved him; this boy who pried swollen red ticks from his flesh and dropped them out the window into the night. After a time he could ignore the pain. He slept.